Kill the designer

Kill the designer

Design is a hotter subject than ever before. Apple is the most successful company in history, fuelled by design, and the subsequent “design thinking” philosophy.
The concept of “design” is far too important to be left to just the designer.

The design practice is often misunderstood. Many of our clients contact us because they want a UX revamp or some design touches on their applications, websites or other visual properties.
It is often assumed that the visual expression created five years ago is a replaceable skin with few ties into the underlying processes. This is a misunderstanding.

This belief has little grasp in reality. Design is not the act of painting, or picking, pretty colours on a house, an application, a brochure or a website.The act of design stretches from the top to the very bottom of everything you do as a team, as a company.

Design is an activity equally dependant on you — on everyone. Design is in everything, and design is a process used by people you would never label as designers.
Would you consider Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, a designer?What about the engineer that elaborately places electronic components onto a breadboard?

These are outlier examples, but they exemplify how our current idea of what a designer is, and isn’t, is broken. What we need is a better way to think and talk about design.

In the new market where segments converge and old distinctions as business-to-consumer / business-to-business are made irrelevant, design moves from being merely a procedural step in the work process to the very core methodology of all work.

A better way to define design

Design is the process of deliberate planning and production of a system.

You cannot afford not to be a designer any more.
You cannot afford to hire an employee who doesn’t design.

I would argue that most of our clients are in dire need of changing into design-driven organisations, and we are often merely hired to help bridging the gap between them and the markets expectations. Putting lipstick on a pig. In order for our clients to catch up they need to internalise this mindset. It’s not something that can be patched up properly from the outside.

A new way of thinking

If your organisation’s success relies on selling an application, you’ll need your product managers, your customer liaisons, your system developers, your CTO and your CEO to be designers!

The CEO and CTO need to think in terms of design for every choice they make. Either they operate under false protection of a good revenue stream, or they are under pressure to resurface a sinking ship.

The customer liaison need to be a designer in order to transfer the customer domain knowledge and feedback into valuable design parameters for the further product development.
The system developers can not implement a design-driven system if they themselves does not speak design. Every micro interaction, every path a background process takes is part of the overall design that makes up the sum of the product.

The product managers need to think in terms of design in order to make the right choices for the product to compete in a market that is increasingly driven by design.

In fact, it’s very likely that you will need to redo the entire organisation chart as well.
Design-driven organisations need interdisciplinary teams to function properly. Departments cannot be split into silos anymore.

The informed reader have perhaps noticed that all of this sounds an awful like digital strategy. In fact, any strategy for business digitalization requires a shift in mindset towards that of the design thinker. It could be argued that this bloats the role of the designer and makes the title useless because it’s sounds all-encompassing, but this fuzziness is part of the digitalization shift.

What about the designer?

When the entire organisation morph into “designers”, what happen to those with that job description in the first place? Are they out of business? Given that design is now even more important, their jobs also got more crucial. And the fact that the rest of the organisation are learning to design, the designers both have a big role in teaching how to think in design, and also to mediate the design processes.
Some designers might find it hard to open up and share the creative processes. They might feel they are giving up control of something that is “theirs”. As with any transformation there will be growing pains and frustrations, but these will be symptoms of the existing knowledge gap.

Create a shared vision of the future

— There will be a personal computer on every desk running Microsoft software.
Bill Gates, Microsoft

In order to create exceptional products and services — which should be the aim of every company — one of the most important tools will be a shared vision of the future. We are not talking about the mumbo jumbo vision you already have. The vision needs to be a shared understanding of an attainable purpose, and the uniqueness you will possess that make you stand out amongst the crowd. It has to become a compass that guides you in making sure everyone pulls in the same direction.

A shared vision is a synthesis weaved together from conversations, discussions and analyses of the decisions you make as an organization. You need to drill the way of thinking so that every employee is comfortable that when making micro decisions, they choose the option that moves towards the shared vision of the future.
Building this intuitive shared mindset is the biggest investment you have to make. It’s important to not have a fixed idea at the beginning of this process, because the process itself is what shapes the end result.

Spare the designer

The next time you consider purchasing a design project, or employing a designer, take a look at yourself — your organisation — and ask if that is what you actually need. And ask yourself if “just hiring a designer” is actually going to be the solution to your problem. The answer is very likely to be a solid no. At least not by itself.
The next time you consider purchasing a design project, you should reevaluate your expected outcome of the project. You should reevaluate how you approach the project, what types of people you allocate to it, and if your project team has the mandate to affect your organisation in a substantial way.
The next time you purchase a design project you should give it the attention and headroom it needs in order to reshape your organisation to better solve real problems.
And if you are a designer, rejoice, the next time you are hired it will probably be with more responsibility and more understanding for your expertise.

This blog post was also published at the Netlife Research company blog at and previously on